The Art and Science of Victory
Federer Forehand

O. K., so Federer did not invent this stroke. It has actually been used by many great champions of the past, including the great Rod Laver. Federer is the stroke's current proponent however, and he arrived at this amazingly complex and counterintuitive procedure the way players today probably would; from the semi-western forehand. He likely started hitting the heavy topspin semi-western (or 'millennium') forehand and evolved into this stroke in a quest for more power and fewer miss hits. In the distant past, players built this stroke on a foundation of the eastern flat forehand in an attempt to add more topspin for control. Indeed this stroke is a synthesis of the past and the present. It combines the best features of the millennium forehand with the classic flat forehand stroke.

 

The Stroke

Federer Forehand - a synthesis of the classic and millennium forehands.

To arrive at the Federer Forehand it is easiest to start from the foundation of the semi-western forehand then make the following adjustments:

  • Shorten the back swing - The big, circular back swing of the semi-western forehand lets you accelerate the racquet head gradually, building racquet head speed into the point of contact. In the federer forehand you shorten the back swing and accelerate the racquet more violently towards the point of contact.
  • Modified semi-western grip - rotate the grip slightly so that the result is exactly half way between the semi-western and eastern grips. (note - this is how Federer and Rod Laver do it, but this stroke also works very well with the eastern or continental grips.)
  • Semi-open stance - The follow through of the semi-western forehand is across the body which requires an open stance for balance. The follow through of the federer forehand is more out and away from the body and towards the target, so to catch your weight at the end of the stroke your left foot must be in front of the body; the line between your toes should be about 45 degrees relative to the baseline.
  • Follow through towards the target - as in the classic forehand. This is not the windshield-wiper follow through of the semi-western forehand. The difference is achieved by straightening and locking the elbow through the point of contact. The semi-western forehand uses a bent elbow through the point of contact.
  • Hook the follow through after the point of contact - Leading up to the point of contact you are flexing and pronating against the inertia of the rapidly accelerating (hyper-heavy) racquet. A few milliseconds after the ball has left the racquet the elbow flexes and the forearm pronates. This results in a kind of mini-windshield-wiper tacked on the end of the follow through. Oddly, this is where the heavy topspin comes from. It is hard to explain why you get get topspin by doing something long after the ball has left the racquet, but that is clearly what happens. Somehow your intention to hook the racquet over results in heavy top. At the same time addressing the ball with a locked elbow and a follow through in the direction of the target results in very solid contact and a heavy, accurate ball.
  • Power from Rotation - of the hips and shoulders accelerating the racquet through the ball.
Shorten the Back swing

Federer forehand back swing - node the compact,circular back swing Massive acceleration is provided by the legs and body.

A short back swing is crucial to this stroke. When your hips and shoulders start to rotate your body into the stroke, you should fell your elbow straighten out as the racquet gets left behind (inertia). Your muscles should tense to drag the racquet straight through the ball. As the elbow straightens you feel a snapping sensation. If it is all too smooth, the stroke will not work to put topspin on the ball and your ball will kiss the back fence.

During the back swing you should be trying to flex the elbow and pronate the forearm but not succeeding. This creates the dynamic tension that results in topspin on the ball at the point of contact.

Follow Through Towards the Target

Follow through towards the target - away from the body and through the ball resulting in a low angle-of-attack and great power.

Following through the ball in the direction of the target is the main difference between the Federer forehand and the Semi-western (Millennium) forehand. It is why the stroke requires a semi-open stance. Note how far out in front of his body Federico's racquet is immediately after the point of contact. The left foot forward of the right catches the weight of the body.

The long, flat follow through is the foundation of the classic forehand and has the following advantages:

  • Low angle-of-attack results in superior power and pace.
  • Racquet face points at the target for a long time. This means that if your timing is a bit off - i.e. a bit late or early - you can still execute the stroke.
  • The contact with the ball is more solid so you get fewer miss-hits.
Hook the Follow through After the Point of Contact

Hook the follow through after the point of contact - Your goal should be to wrap the racquet around your neck or shoulder and you should be trying to flex and pronate but failing to do so until the trunk rotation slows. This allows the racquet head to come up and over.

Compared to your legs and trunk, your arms are wimpy (no offense intended - that is just the way humans are built). If you rotate your trunk and shoulders fast enough there is no way your right arm can stay flexed and pronated - the inertia of the racquet tends to make it want to stay put. Your elbow extends and your forearm supinates until you reach a certain point of resistance - this is cocking the topspin gun. It is a type of counter rotation. It is a form of stored energy.

Unlike the millennium forehand, the stored energy of the Federer Forehand is not released as racquet head speed.You do not let the racquet come over until after the ball has left. Instead the energy is transferred to the ball by some magical process that happens at the point of contact. After the point of contact, as the legs and trunk slow their rotation the racquet head comes up and over as the elbow is allowed to flex and the forearm to pronate, but this release must not occur before the ball has left the strings or you will drive the ball into the base of the net.

How it works

Federer forehand mechanics - As the trunk and shoulders rotate (green arrow) the acceleration makes the racquet very 'heavy' straightening out the elbow and supinating the forearm. Your intention to flex (blue arrow) the elbow and pronate the forearm (pink arrow) against this resistance results in heavy topspin despite the relatively flat angle of attack of the racquet face. The result is power+control = victory.

At the heart of this stroke is the intention to put topspin on the ball Unlike the semi-western forehand, which creates topspin with high racquet head speed and a steep angle of attack of the racquet face, topspin in the Federer Forehand comes from certain kinds of muscular tension that are present at the point of contact. Specifically the muscles that flex the elbow and pronate the forearm are contracting against resistance. This happens because of your intention to pronate the forearm and flex the elbow in the follow through, a process that you actually begin in the back swing as you pull racquet head into the ball. Your brain knows it has to pronate and flex, but the acceleration provided by your legs, hips, trunk and shoulder rotation is so violent that the inertia of the racquet and your arm prevents flexion and pronation from occurring. At the point of contact your elbow is extended and your forearm is in neutral rotation.

After the racquet head passes through the ball, the body slows its rotation and the muscles of the arm overcome the inertia of the racquet and the elbow bends and forearm pronates.

So what? So when the racquet strings meet the ball, even though the racquet head is moving basically forward (a low angle of attack) the forces applied to the racket head are hugely unbalanced, with 'up and over' forces predominating - this is where the topspin comes from.